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The Alaska Department of Corrections disclosed another inmate death this week — the eighteenth to die in state custody, the highest death rate in two decades.
“I’d like to know why they died, or how they died.”
State Senator Donny Olson would like to know more about the Alaska Native inmates who died.
Of the 18 deaths, nine were either Alaska Native or American Indian — and eight were from Olson’s district, which takes in a huge swath of the northernmost parts of the state.
“As a physician I value life very highly. And to have deaths happen with this number, especially when so many of them are from my district, I am very disturbed by it.”
Senator Olson says he supports demands from the Alaska Civil Liberties Union for a full-scale investigation into this year’s prison deaths, one they say that the governor of Alaska has ignored.
His administration has said none of the deaths were suspicious or unusual. But Olson says, with half of them from one minority group, that should be a huge red flag.
Megan Edge, who heads up the ACLU’s prison project says, these deaths point to a systemic problem in Alaska prisons.
“It’s not surprising in that regard. And I don’t mean that like to undermine it. It’s incredibly sad. But I think it goes to show that we’re still running a system that disregards the lives of Black and Brown people.”
Edge says the high rates of suicide, especially for Alaska Native inmates, are also cause for alarm.
The Department of Corrections said in a statement that its staff “takes every death very seriously, regardless of race or nationality,” and that “updated policy and procedures meet the ever-changing national standards set by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.”
Families of the inmates, who died in custody, have told the ACLU they’ve had trouble getting information from the state about how their loved ones died.
The Corrections Department says it can’t give out those details, citing medical privacy laws. Sen. Olson has told families to contact his office, if they need help in learning more.
Olson is Inupiat, a physician, reindeer herder, pilot, and businessman.
An Arizona State University graduate says she wants to shape public policy to help change inequities Native Americans face. Alex Gonzalez has more.
Ty’Lesha Yellowhair says changing public policy that guides social services would not only ensure that tribal members receive the care they need, but also help to change the public perception of Native communities. She says tribal communities face challenges like any other, but they hold lots of strength and resiliency.
Yellowhair is from the Navajo Nation, originally from Kayenta, AZ, and currently works in the Office of Health Programs for the Phoenix Area Indian Health Services as a social service assistant. She says she wants her story to serve as an inspiration to others.
“I hope that my story being shared can change the image of what people have of Native communities – like, we too can become professionals. We too can deal with policy. We too have the power to change what’s happening around us.”
Yellowhair comes from a family of teachers, and is the first social worker and public administrator. She says her mother, a teacher of more than 50 years, was fundamental in helping her understand that people have different lived experiences.
Yellowhair says her childhood influenced the work she does today. She acknowledges that she grew up in a home with two educated working parents, and knows that wasn’t the case for everyone. Her graduate work led her to study violence in indigenous communities, specifically against Native women and children.
Yellowhair says she hasn’t met a single Native woman who wasn’t impacted by some sort of violence in her life – and she’s convinced there must be a greater focus on this issue.
“To me, that speaks volumes. And that is what continues to drive me, as a person who strives to be an advocate for my community.”
Yellowhair says she has the tools to fight for justice and reparations. She says she hopes to give back to her community and others by advocating through policy or fighting for systemic change.
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